The Right to Work Isn’t

Yesterday, Michigan’s Republican governor signed the Republican lame-duck legislature’s improperly named “right to work” statute. Already, people are clamoring for a similar law to be passed in New York, so that we, too, can join the other, enlightened states that have such legislation – states like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Oklahoma. Tea party states. N0bama states. 

Giving laws exquisitely misleading names is a hallmark of the last few decades. The PATRIOT act offends most American values we used to hold dear. The Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t defend any marriage; it prevents the federal government from recognizing the legality of same-sex marriages if states allow them. There are tons more, and it’s a bipartisan issue

But “right to work” statutes sound fantastic – it would be great if the government actually instituted a law that gave people a fundamental right to work. However, such laws were actually a hallmark of Leninist dictatorships, where people were given make-work do-nothing jobs because who cares? Everyone works for the state, anyway. 

Isn’t it hilarious that the proponents of an American “right to work” scheme are the same people who shout “socialism” at a market-based, conservative Heritage Foundation-created Obamacare? They also scream “MARX” and “LENIN” at you when you suggest that we should join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee every American the right to access to quality health care. 

As an aside – if you yell “socialism” at everything Obama does, and the economy starts to improve – if your personal situation improves – then “socialism” is going to gain in popularity. Dummies. 

Back to Michigan and “right to work”. What it does is interfere with the right to contract. What it does is interfere with the right of workers to collectively organize and negotiate with management for better pay, better benefits, better work conditions. By weakening those labor protections, you weaken the right to organize and to freely associate. 

Right-to-work laws prohibit “union security agreements”, which are contracts between unions and management whereby the union can require labor to join a union as a condition of employment. This ensures that labor can effectively negotiate working conditions with management at something approaching a level playing field; it gives the exploited labor some leverage. What these laws are not is some sort of statutory guarantee of available employment for every citizen of a state. 

That’s not always how it shakes out. For instance, right-to-work North Carolina has a 9.3% unemployment rate right now, while liberal Massachusetts has a 6.6% rate. You’d think that employers, unshackled by unions, would flock to North Carolina and hire wildly.  Indiana’s unemployment rate dropped somewhat after it passed a right-to-work statute. No huge drop, however. And what do you give up for that? The right to work for crappy wages with crappy benefits? How does this help grow the middle class, or lift the middle class up? How does this advance our society in any meaningful way? How does this enhance the dignity of work? 

The American assault on labor began in earnest when Reagan broke the air traffic controller’s union. Since that time, wages have stagnated, and income inequality has skyrocketed. When you weaken labor, you turn America into a plutocratic banana republic, where the very rich pay off the politicians to ensure that their wealth is protected and secured at the expense of the remaining 99% of Americans. That’s what conservatism in America has wrought

Instead of making it easier for workers to be exploited more by their management, the government should be protecting the rights of workers to be treated fairly and equitably. We should be protecting the right of people to organize and associate with each other in order to ensure good treatment in the workplace. We should be expanding – not contracting – the rights of labor, and by doing that you strengthen America. An America where people don’t march in the streets when multinational corporations legally avoid paying taxes by exporting their profits to holding companies in tax havens. We don’t march in the streets when people shoplift so they can get chemotherapy treatment. We don’t march in the streets for much of anything, except to stand in line for Zhu Zhu Pets or to rail against some fantasy Kenyan socialism. 

What Michigan did is done, and perhaps its unemployment rate will drop, in time. But so will New York’s, and so will everyone else’s. The question is – what are the quality and type of the jobs being created, and why should we further erode the constitutional guarantee of free association. Instead, Michigan is about to free ownership to treat workers as fungible chattel. 

WTF, America?

So You Want to do Business in New York

Inflatable Rat

Inflatable Rat was unavailable for comment

Governor Cuomo is wildly popular, and he’s getting loads of credit for helping to fix the state’s fiscal crisis, and also for implementing and advocating for reforms of the way in which the state does its business. Perhaps, however, the change he’s brought has been too tentative and not wide-reaching enough.  

Take, for instance, the case of Howard Nielsen, the owner of Sticky Lips BBQ in Rochester. I first became aware of his restaurant when I saw the new one being constructed along Jefferson Road, and I had a very nice lunch there recently. He’s written an exasperated open letter right on the front page of his restaurant’s website, called “So You Want to do Business in New York“.  

The land on which the restaurant sits is owned by the Genesee Valley Regional Market Authority and leased to Sticky Lips, which owns the building. It’s a small property – a former Roadhouse restaurant – and Sticky Lips completed its renovations through a private non-union contractor. It’s not a “public work”, he’s not required under any regulation or statute to retain the services of union labor, and he is just a guy who owns a restaurant who built it out and paid a bunch of people a lot of money to renovate and build it out. He didn’t use any public money to do so. 

But the shakedown began when, halfway through the project, a guy from the carpenter’s union showed up. It was a small job, and he was told, “no thanks”.  Two days later, there was an OSHA guy camped out across the street with “a telephoto lens”. A few weeks later, a guy from the electrical union showed up. They were also told, “no thanks.” Two days later, an inspector from the state Department of Labor was on site, demanding to see the contracts to determine whether prevailing wages were being paid. 

I’m generally pro-union, and I respect the notion of collective bargaining to ensure that workers who choose to unionize are treated fairly. But that should apply to big business, or public works. Ultimately – it’s the workers’ choice whether to work for a union shop or not, and small businesses renovating a non-chain restaurant should, frankly, be left alone, much less harassed. And why is it that state and federal inspectors are seemingly acting in concert – one could even say on behalf of – the union? 

Now? Sticky Lips’ contractors were all subpoenaed for a May 16th hearing at the Labor Department for an investigation of whether laws were broken. Nielsen continues, 

Bob Bibbins pressured me to go online to register this project with the labor department, which would automatically commit me or my contractors to pay prevailing wages.  He said he would start the violation from the date he showed up, but wouldn’t put that deal in writing.  I did not submit to this online filing. My lawyer at Woods Oviatt Gilman gave Bibbins our stance that we own the building privately and we are only making improvements to the building and not the land which it sits on.


In the meantime, Bibbins is going to push this and see that I pay these prevailing wages. He has subpoenaed the contractors, who have to show up May 16th and attend before Ralph Gleason, public work wage investigator. He has been designated by the Commissioner of Labor to conduct an investigation concerning Sticky Lips BBQ, “an entity subject to an investigation by the New York State Department of Labor concerning a public work project pursuant to the provisions of Article 8, New York State Labor Law.”

All I did was to put many construction workers to work. I bought hundreds of thousands of dollars of construction materials from local companies. At this restaurant, I have created over 120 good-paying jobs. The business will collect and pay hundreds of thousands dollars in sales, property, employment, and other taxes. Between my three restaurants, I have over 200 employees. I am contributing to the state, I am creating jobs. I am the type of businessman the state wants. I feel like I am being attacked by these two unions, who have put pressure on the N.Y.S. Labor Department to see this through.

Not only do I need to reinvest my profits to grow my business, but now I have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees and worst case scenario – if the Labor Department wins, many more thousands for this prevailing wage issue.

Is this the type of business practice I should expect from New York State as I try to grow my business in the upcoming years?

Nielsen has appended some documents to his letter to prove his point. So, why exactly was this relatively small venture targeted?